* Rich waters are home to whales, abundant fisheries
* Area larger than Delaware will be protected
* Energy companies have little interest in the area
By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES, Dec 20 The administration of
President Barack Obama plans to more than double the size of two
marine sanctuaries off the northern California coast to guard
the near pristine waters from oil drilling in a move that
sidesteps potential hurdles in Congress, federal officials said
The proposed expansion would protect nutrient-rich Pacific
Ocean waters off the coast north of San Francisco that are home
to humpback whales, great white sharks and abundant fish stocks
key to commercial fishing and tourism, officials said.
"This area is a national treasure, it needs and it deserves
permanent protection from oil and gas exploration," said
Representative Lynn Woolsey, a Democrat who represents Marin and
Sonoma counties north of San Francisco.
"Believe me when I tell you that no one is going to vacation
on the Sonoma coast if they are going to be looking at oil
derricks," she said.
The protected zone covers nearly 2,800 square nautical
miles, an area slightly bigger than the state of Delaware. From
north to south, it ranges from the coast of the town of Point
Arena to the waters beyond San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
Amid widespread public opposition in California to offshore
drilling, the oil industry says it has no active plans to
exploit the designated area.
Woolsey, who is retiring after 10 terms in the U.S. House of
Representatives, has pushed for the marine sanctuary expansion
since 2004, but says Republican opposition in Congress was
preventing its passage.
"The plain fact is that the Republican House majority will
not debate or pass this bill," Woolsey said.
A House bill passed in 2008 did not get past the
Democratic-controlled Senate that year.
Under pressure from Democratic leaders in Washington, the
Obama administration's National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration has proposed expanding two existing federal
marine sanctuaries, Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones.
The process will take up to two years as the agency hears
from the public, officials said. The two existing sanctuaries
cover over 1,800 nautical square miles, according to NOAA.
Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum
Association, said none of the oil companies in his organization
have shown an interest in drilling in northern California.
"It's not an area where there is any expectation that
additional energy is going to be brought to market," Hull said.
Several Republican members of Congress active on energy
issues could not be reached for comment on the plan.
All of California's offshore oil production comes from 32
platforms off the southern coast of the state, and those
derricks date from the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hull said.
Drilling in federal waters off California produces only 54,000
barrels a day, compared to 1.3 million a day in the Gulf of
Mexico, according to U.S. government figures.
The proposed waters to be protected in northern California
has North America's most intense "upswelling" zone, where
nutrient-rich water comes to the ocean surface and feeds many
kinds of marine life, according to NOAA.
(Reporting By Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and